Mathias Danbolt:

Textual dominance

If the first part of the exhibition was difficult to find, the main section of As I Am was far more visible and engaging. The elegant banquet hall had been filled with temporary walls, built into an over-all structure of gold-painted wooden beams. The show did not have any clear trajectory, but the different colors on the walls seemed to create some thematic connections: The blue walls included texts and material pertaining to how lesbian and gays have been treated by the juridical system and the police; the purple walls focused on lesbian and gay activism and communities in the 70s; the turquoise walls thematized a somewhat confused mixture of transsexuality and transvestitism, while the red and pink walls touched upon everything from same-sex dancing, AIDS, Dykes on Bikes, SM culture, and male cruising.

The themes addressed were many and different, as it should be in an exhibition on LGBT life in a city as diverse as Copenhagen. This part of the show also used placards as the main communicative strategy. The walls were filled with short texts, supplemented with photographs, screens with film clips, clothes, posters, and other forms of “ephemera.” It was obvious that the curators had tried to include as much material as possible, prioritizing quantity over structure, aesthetics, and communication. Some walls were somewhat confusingly structured, and as a visitor one really needed quite some time to be able to understand the connections between the objects, images, and texts.




click to enlarge

But there were many fantastic objects on show, for instance the framed hand-made board game on a wall on lesbian communities. Structured around two women’s symbols the players move around in two circles – one entitled “Women’s commune” (Kvindekommune), the other “Capitalist male society” (Kapitalistisk mandssamfund). The circles were divided into spaces with texts reading, “Perhaps you are bisexual and not a lesbian. Think about it, and wait for your next turn,” or, “You give an evil eye to a male chauvinist, throw the dice again.”[6] This fascinating board game enhanced my curiosity: Who made this beautiful game? Who played it? Who saved it and framed it? Unfortunately, no information was provided that could place the game in a specific context, and it was therefore impossible to know whether these questions could be answered or not.

[6] My translation of the



A similar “anonymous” presentation could be found in the display of gay and lesbian pornography. On a blue wall, a charming series of lesbian erotica from what looked like the 1960s or 1970s was mounted. In six photographs we see two women moving from sitting awkwardly on a couch to starting to caress each other, ending up undressed, kissing, and touching each other’s breasts. The presentation did not contain any reference to where these images came from. The wall text only included some paragraphs on disparate themes such as “Engendered sickness,” “Sex education,” in addition to the one on pornography:



Among “French postcards” and “nature studies,” it always seems to have been a niche for images of homosexuality and transgender persons. The legalization of pornography in 1967 (text) and 1969 (images) made Denmark famous and infamous across the world, and Copenhagen became almost synonymous with everything that was daring and lewd – “and that which is even worse.”[7]

The text is quite typical for the wall text in the show. While it provides us with some superficial information on the theme “pornography in Denmark,” it is anything but enlightening for the photographs on show. Rather, it turns the visual material into curious illustrations. The series of lesbian pornography is indeed peculiar, but it is also more than this. The photographs are historical sources with a potential of telling us something about lesbian desire and politics in Copenhagen. When dealing with pornography as historical sources the imagery is not always the most interesting aspect. Often it is the context of its production, use, and circulation that can rouse our historical imagination: Who took these pictures? Who are the models? Who desired these depicted women? Who masturbated to them? And, not the least, who cared to save them as precious objects? Do they come from the City Museum’s archive? Or have they been donated to the show from a private person or collector? As no information is provided, it is hard to know whether the curators would know the answer to this or not. But even though the material might have been anonymous from the start, this un-knowing could in itself have been an interesting point of departure if stated, telling us something about the archival legacies of illicit historical sources such as pornography.

Since pornography has also been a matter of heated debates in different feminist and lesbian feminist circles for years, this material, moreover, could have been used as an opening for addressing conflicts and discussions within the lesbian scene in Copenhagen. But disputes and differences are not taken up in the show. By de-contextualizing the pictures and presenting them as illustrations of pornography in general, such nuances are lost.

[7] My translation of the

While As I Am was filled with fascinating visual material like these photographs, the material was unfortunately only presented as silent illustrations to the textual “facts” on the placards. This reduction of visual and cultural material left out several important perspectives and histories. When I am interested in the context surrounding for instance the board game and erotic photographs, it is not because I think texts are better sources than images or object, but rather that context is important for how images and visual material function as sources.[8] If the curators had invited us into the relationships that these photographs and objects were part of before they where presented in this show, many different perspectives could have been raised. Detached from the emotional, personal, archival, and other contextual relations in the museum’s unidentified presentation, alternative stories are lost. Quite paradoxically for an exhibition filled with images and objects, it is the textual placards that stand out as the main communicatory strategy – while the visual material functions as illustrative entertainment. Hence, As I Am unfortunately repeats the dominating prioritizing of text for the understanding of history, excluding the visual, tactile, and performative from the realm of historical sources.

[8] For an elaborate discussion

Queering the archive

The textual authority in the exhibition is not an exception in the context of history exhibitions. The prioritizing of text has for long also dominated the theoretical and methodological traditions in the humanities in general.[9] But in relation to LGBT histories in particular, where traditional written archival records are scarce, one could ask whether it would not have been especially pertinent to think beyond the realm of the textual in structuring the exhibition. Recent queer-theoretical discussions on archives might have provided some inspiration to address these issues. As performance theorist José Esteban Muñoz has pointed out in the article “Ephemera as Evidence” (1996), the un-documentable and ephemeral are central to any understanding of queer history. In an attempt to outline the specific temporality of queer acts and performance, Muñoz writes:

[9] Peter Burke, Eyewitnessing: The

Queerness is often transmitted covertly. This has everything to do with the fact that leaving too much of a trace has often meant that the queer subject has left herself open for attack. Instead of being clearly available as visible evidence, queerness has instead existed as innuendo, gossip, fleeting moments, and performances that are meant to be interacted with by those within its epistemological sphere – while evaporating at the touch of those who would eliminate queer possibility.[10]

Muñoz reminds us that the lack of queer presence in official archives and histories are related to the performative and ephemeral quality of queer acts. Destructing traces that could confirm queerness have been important to survive in a heteronormative world. Focusing on the “invisible evidence” of queerness, Muñoz shows the necessity of rethinking the archive when writing and presenting queer history.

Muñoz’s call for thinking beyond the textual document in queer storytelling is also echoed in cultural theorist Ann Cvetkovich’s seminal book An Archive of Feelings (2003). Here she points out that “[l]esbian and gay history demands a radical archive of emotion in order to document intimacy, sexuality, love, and activism – all areas of experience that are difficult to chronicle through the materials of a traditional archive.”[11]

[10] José Esteban Muñoz, “Ephemera



A wall on gay activism

Cvetkovich’s reminder of the importance of affect and emotions in LGBT history could have been a fruitful perspective for the presentation of objects and visual material in the As I Am exhibition. Especially since it is apparent that many of the objects and images on show have been preserved and included because they have had an emotional importance to someone, either as a trace or token reminding of love, sex, friendships, or untimely deaths. But in As I Am, little has been done to communicate such affective attachments and queer kinds of valuations. Only a few statements from persons who have donated material have been included in the show. These short personal stories on the felt value of things are effective and touching, creating rare moments of intimacy in an otherwise dispassionate exhibition.


Mathias Danbolt: Back to the Darkroom, Please! Disrupting the History of Progress in As I Am: LGBT in CPH. Trikster #4, 2010.